Tag Archives: poetry

The writings of Jonny Fluffypunk – reviewed

Jonny Fluffypunk is one of the many strange, colourful (and in this instance, stripey) contributors to Stroud being such an awesome place to live. I’ve seen him live repeatedly, and have finally got my hands on his published work.

The Sustainable Nihilist’s Handbook mixes poetry with short prose pieces. The poetry has the energy you’d expect from someone who does a lot of performance. Most of it is funny, but without becoming trivial. Surreal, surprising, uneasy. Mr Fluffypunk is the master of too much information, with confessions from his youth which may or may not be true but will leave you with some startling mental images. It’s a small book and does not take long to read, but unlike many poetry collections, it is the sort of thing you can just sit down and read cover to cover in one go.  I can heartily recommend it.

More here – http://burningeye.bigcartel.com/product/the-sustainable-nihilist-s-handbook-by-jonny-fluffypunk

 

Poundland Rimbaud is Jonny’s second collection and like the first, it contains a mix of poetry and prose. Unlike the first, it also has a steady supply of footnotes. Some of these add context and insights, some whip the rug out from under a poem’s metaphorical feet (I could get a joke about meter in here, but I’m resisting it). Again there’s the kind of comedy that comes from discomfort, over sharing, and a keen eye for the inherent ridiculousness of human beings. The last section of this book is a full script, with production notes for the one man show ‘Man up, Jonny Fluffypunk’. Having seen the show, I found this fascinating, but have no idea how it would read for someone innocent of the experience. In the printed version, the author lays bare the methods by which the audience is to be emotionally manipulated, and its not just about long, uncomfortable silences…

I thought the whole thing was brilliant, and highly readable – as with the first book I devoured it over a couple of sittings.

More here – http://burningeye.bigcartel.com/product/poundland-rimbaud

Jonny Fluffypunk talks in his work about poetry being dangerous, and about being personally dangerous. I can vouch for this, having mistakenly sat in the front row at one of his shows, and consequently had all of the poetry relating to unrequited teenage love directed towards me. She was plump, greasy, not conventionally attractive, and largely oblivious. I was considerably older and there was no scope for obliviousness. There’s been no point in my life when anything like that happened in a real way – it could only happen as a joke, requiring me to look into some personal voids I generally try to ignore. Live art is inherently risky, you never know what a poet might decide to do to you.

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How to be a poet

Creativity starts long before you sit down with the tools to make a piece. For the sake of coherence, I’m going to focus in this post specifically on what needs to happen before a poem is written.

A poet needs a love for and skill with language – I would say more so than any other kind of writer. A poet needs to be alert to the sounds, shapes, and rhymes of words. They also need to be conscious of the implications and possibilities each word they use may hold. Sensitivity to language and to the way it can be used is something to be involved with every day.

Poems tend to be smaller than other forms of writing. They call for precision. To be precise, you have to know what you want to get across. To do that well, you need to understand what the most important features are, or what will most readily evoke it. That in turn requires paying attention.

I think I can tell the difference between a poet who had an idea and sat down to flesh it out, and a poet who starts from keen observation and then whittles it down into a piece. The second instance produces poems that are richer and more surprising, because there’s an alertness to detail that you can’t have unless you’ve been working on it all along.

Any experience has the potential for poetry in it. The person who lives in a state of awareness, noticing the details, the nuances, the processes, is well placed to draw on that wealth of experience.

The person who only looks at their own experience, and does so in a fairly superficial way, tends to write poetry charged only by the feeling of the moment. What they won’t necessarily know how to do is make that accessible to other people. If you work only at the surface, you get the hot anger and the cold resentment, soft feelings of love and hollow feelings of loss… but there are many, many poems out there that talk in superficial metaphors about common human experiences. To have something new to say, you need to know more than this.

Poets also need to be people who read poetry. Other reading certainly helps, but encountering – as text or performance – really good poetry makes a lot of difference. Poetry can take many forms, and exists in many cultures. The shape of the piece is often part of where it comes from and what it needs to say. What you’d try to express in a Japanese haiku is not what you’d be trying to express in Icelandic rap, which is not what you’d find in the rap styles of urban America. Slam poetry has its own rhythms and purposes, but has a different flavour to poetry inspired directly by beat poets. And so on, and so forth. Know the form you mean to write in, and get to know as many other forms as you can, because it all helps.

You should be able to read back your finished and edited poem and justify every word and comma in it. You should know why each is there and why it couldn’t possibly be replaced by some other word, or a colon. You should be confident that no word could be taken away without harming the whole and that equally, no word could be added, without it causing more harm than help. You should reach this point confident that your poem does what you intended it to do, and that a reader or listener will be affected in the right way by it.


The Soil Never Sleeps – a review

This is a poetry collection like nothing I have ever read before, and I’ve read a fair amount of poetry over the years. Poet Adam Horovitz visited pasture farms through the seasons. There were four farms in different parts of the UK, and the visits were in spring, autumn, winter and then summer, which is reflected in the structure of the book. This is poetry that goes far beyond the usual picturesque treatments of landscape. This is nature writing that goes far beyond what nature writing normally does. Intense, personal, specific and powerful, this is a truly remarkable book and one of those rare texts I think everyone should read.

The pasture farms in question all seek to work in harmony with the land, the soil, the grass, and as a consequence these are landscapes full of wildlife as well as the sheep and cows the farms focus on. It’s a demonstration of what small scale, responsible animal rearing means. This was entirely beyond my experience, and I learned a lot in practical terms. We don’t have a pristine landscape untouched by humans here in the UK, we have a landscape informed by thousands of years of human activity – including grazing herds. It’s something that can be done well, and there are many species that have evolved to exist in our meadows and pastures, if we don’t force them out.

There’s nothing preachy about these poems. Adam tells stories of life on the land, creatures encountered, experiences in landscapes, stories of soil and grass and bramble. Those stories invite us to see the pasture in an entirely new way, and that’s really exciting. It’s an eye opener.

Adam is certainly one of my favourite poets. His work is lyrical, emotionally affecting (but never heavy handed) reflective, and engaging. He’s always accessible. You don’t need to have read anything else, or studied anything. I’ve been in the fortunate position of hearing some of these poems read out loud, and they can be absorbed in a single hearing. You don’t have to sweat over the page to make sense of them. At the same time, the poems reward repeat encounters, opening up to you as you revisit them, as a friend might. It’s beautiful work.

I really appreciated the way in which these poems are so absolutely specific to time and place, to people and to creatures who emerge from the text as distinct individuals. This isn’t nature as backdrop. Nor is it nature or landscape as some kind of metaphor for inner human experiences. These are songs of soil and sheep, of cows and seasons, and as they unfold, they teach you why it is not enough to see landscape as backdrop and wildlife as metaphor. It’s a powerful, magical act of re-enchantment and of re-engagement with the world.

Adam has a rare knack for taking the language of the every day and making it sing, putting depth and meaning into words we may have become complacent about. Showing us how our own, every day language might be imbued with grace and substance.

The final section of the poems is the most overtly political, reflecting on the poet’s experience of land and farming, and the wider world. I think that’s vital at the moment. We can’t separate the personal from the political, or the land from the lawmakers intent on ravaging is as a resource. It is so easy to get demoralised about these thing, but Adam chooses to uplift and inspire, and we need more of this.

Listen to a poem here – https://soundcloud.com/resoundradio2017/adam-horovitz-the-soil-never-sleeps 

Buy the book here (and other places!) https://www.amazon.co.uk/Soil-Never-Sleeps-Poems-Horovitz/dp/1911587056


Polishing poetry

For many people, poetry hits the page in a rush of emotion and/or inspiration. Developing it beyond that point can feel a tad sacrilegious, and I remember it took me quite some time both to learn how to do it, and to be willing to do it. I’ve tried writing the kind of poetry that is tinkered out in a calmer and more intellectual way and I can’t honestly say I like the results. As writing poetry is something I do for myself, I don’t have to be workish about it, I can wait for the lightning bolt to strike.

My usual method (other methods no doubt exist and are just as valid) is to write in the heat of the moment, and then put the piece aside for a day or two. When I come back, I’ll read through and see how I feel about it. I then get in there line by line, and look hard at what I’ve created to see if it has any flaws that need fixing, or if it’s going in a direction and needs developing. I am rather prone to accidentally writing things that are almost sonnets, which may become actual sonnets on the second draft.

I look for word repetitions, and either swap new words in, or decide to take the repetition and make a feature of it. I check the line length and I take out any words that don’t need to be there, and I change any words that disrupt the flow of reading. If I’ve settled on a structure, I rework so that the poem fits the structure. I make sure that the rhythms don’t make it sound clunky and obvious. I look for opportunities to play with alliteration, and rhymes that aren’t at the ends of lines. I try and make sure it makes sense, not only to me, but to someone who has no idea what I was thinking and feeling when I wrote it.

I’ll look for clichés, mixed metaphors, weak similes. I’ll look at the tone and my language choices to make sure they align fairly well. That’s a particularly subjective process, I think. The mood of an individual word and the mood created by a set of words doesn’t always come across as you intend. I’ve found this repeatedly with a poet friend of mine whose heartfelt anger always reads like cool cynicism to me.

I may read it out loud, because this is a really good way of spotting anything that doesn’t have a good ring to it. I may read it to someone else to test it for sense and impact. I’ll look at the layout on the page and consider whether that supports the mood, readability, coherence, and I’ll move things round to try and help that. My final sweep is usually to sort out the punctuation, which I put down as a guide to how I want it read out loud.

Writing a poem is only ever half of a process, and the other half happens when you share it. No matter what you do to try and control the impact of the poem, there will always be ways people can interpret it that you didn’t intend. Even if you avoid metaphors and similes and try for the clearest communication you can, people understand different words in different ways. For me, this is part of the joy of the thing. What I mean, and what someone else hears will never perfectly align, because language is an imperfect form of communication. I’m aiming for the closest alignment I can get, relaxed about the inevitability of people hearing things, or reading things, I did not intend them to find.


The courting of poems

Everyone who writes will have their own process, or more than one way of bringing words together. For some it’s all about jotting down notes, mapping out ideas, sketching, doodling, trying things and putting together the bits that work. It’s rare that a good piece of writing comes together fully formed and straight onto the page, even those of us who don’t do much development writing expect to have to edit and tidy up whatever emerged in the rush of inspiration.

For me, a poem usually begins with a seed idea. That can come from absolutely anywhere, so of course every single day is full of hundreds of things that might be poems. There’s an unconscious selection process that makes me latch onto some things and not others. A sense of possibility, of something I can follow and develop is usually part of this, and I notice it happening even though I’m not in deliberate control of it.

Once I’ve got that seed idea, I’ll hold it for as long as it takes. Usually a few days, but sometimes longer – months, in a recent case. I’ll think about the idea I’ve got, feel my way around it, see what it connects with. I won’t pick up a pen and risk catching it on paper before it is ready, and I’ve learned that it pays not to rush. I’ll play with word arrangements in my head, testing turns of phrase against the idea.

For example, I recently posted a poem called ‘The Use of Cauldrons’. It was a response to the OBOD work I did with Taliesin more than a decade ago, and to Lorna Smithers’ The Broken Cauldron, which I read last year, so I’d been gestating unconsciously for a long time. I simply woke up with a sense of how to write about cauldrons. It then took several days of just letting that wash around in my brain, and then I was able to sit down and write a decent first draft fairly quickly. I left it alone for a couple of days and then tidied it up. A second poem written recently was sparked back in the winter, I knew what I wanted to do but not how to do it. Again, there were unconscious processes, and then an invitation to read locally, and things fell into place.

For me, the process of creating a poem begins long before pen meets paper. I can’t manufacture those little seeds of inspiration that stand out, and have the potential to become something. They are a consequence of richness in my life – that can come from time spent outside, time with friends, time being inspired by other people’s creativity and anything else with that kind of depth and intensity. If I don’t deliberately make room for that kind of experience, then there won’t be the ‘ping’ moments that give me something to write about.


How to read poetry

Poetry, especially when offered in the first person, can seem profoundly intimate. I think it’s the most intense form of word expression available if you choose to use it that way. That intensity can help fuel the impression that the poetry is an exposing of self.

I suspect the whole business is further complicated by what we might end up reading and hearing – professional contemporary poetry is rare. The industry believes that people no longer buy poetry. As a consequence, what any of us are most likely to encounter at slams or online or in poetry groups, is people who do very much seem to be writing from the heart. Poetry as catharsis, as healing process, cheaper than therapy.

When I posted ‘my facebookfriend has unfriended me’ a bit back, there were sounds of condolence, ‘sorry you’ve had this experience’. There wasn’t a specific experience underlying it, and the emotional energy came from a different set of recent experiences that had annoyed me, but which I couldn’t write about in a way I found useful or amusing. Alchemical transformations in the writing process turn original experience into something that makes sense.

The ‘I’ of the poet can be as much a device as a story author speaking in first person. The ‘voice’ of a poet can be as much a construction as any other form of art. How much do we read the poet in the poem? I know I do it, encountering the poetry of friends, sometimes knowing about some bits they’ve drawn from experience, inferring something of the heart and soul where perhaps what I’ve seen is craft and inspiration.

A poem can be true, without being any kind of literal truth.

A poet can be honest and authentic, without revealing anything of their own story.

But to what extent do we, as readers and audience, need to feel that the poet is indeed hefting up a bit of their heart, or putting a slice of their soul in front of us?


A poem about poets

The Poets have Gone Out

 

The Poets have gone to the hills

Free from domestic nuisance and noise

They can speak of deeper, manly things:

Literature, philosophy, their own most recent work.

 

Later, in letters they will reflect on

Each other’s excellent, worthwhile thoughts.

Later again, academics will delve,

Ponder these exchanges, write papers on

The insights, teach students, build careers.

 

All the while, the wives of The Poets

Feed mouths, clean, mend, sew and tend.

Darn the socks of Poets

Make the breakfast of Poets

Raise the offspring of Poets

 

No record remaining of what they say

Once The Poets have gone out for the day.

 

(I was thinking very much about Victorian and early twentieth century writers when I wrote this. And a line from T.S. Eliot’s literary criticism that haunts me about how poetry should be dry, hard and manly, and Robert Graves’ obsession with the idea that men are poets and women are to embody the Goddess and be muses, and an array of other such annoyances in that vein.)


Poem: Encounter

Eye contact.

Shy cautious checking

Each other out.

Checking for danger,

For interest.

We’re very still.

I offer; you gaze.

When you move

It is sudden.

Fluttering, hovering close.

I do not breathe.

You do not stay.

We try again,

The same dance.

I offer, you assess.

This time you move in

Bold, certain, landing.

Into my waiting hand.

Onto my skin.

Eye contact.

Still cautious, checking,

Your feet so small,

Your tiny weight,

A miracle on my fingers.

I do not breathe,

And when you

Have taken grain enough,

You fly away.


Poetic truth

What do we use instead of metaphors, to talk about things more fully, but without getting caught in language that can be used against us? I get into the most interesting conversations, and the first fruits of that exchange are there to be read at Celtic Earth Spirit.

We know that police have used anti-terrorist laws to monitor law abiding Green activists and politicians. We know there are lists. We know that standing up for the survival of the planet and the species is considered radical and dangerous. Which when you stop and think about it, is weird. Where this is going and how seriously planet-protectors are threatened by laws designed to stop terrorists, is anyone’s guess. But, however this goes, new approaches to language may help us.

Language is a currency, and like any other currency, it can be devalued. Miss-use and over-use can take the power out of words. When corporations take your words to use in marketing campaigns, they take power as well. ‘Community’ is something politicians like to say when they mean to sound inclusive.

Modern language is increasingly about the pulling together of words. Chillax. Brexit. Remoaner. It’s sloppy, soundbite thinking designed to reduce and diminish. Careless misrepresenting of other people’s words has become a staple of fake news. I don’t think there’s one answer to this – not least because a multiplicity of individual answers is always the better way to go. Treating language with love would be a good part of the mix.

So let’s speak in story and metaphor, in poetry and allusion. Let’s play with the breadth and depth of languages, old and news to find words that have not been tarnished with poor usage. Let’s find and use heart words, soul words, the language of human in the landscape. No more trite little phrases designed to silence dissent. No more petty point scoring where winning trumps truth as a priority. With wit and wordplay, pun and poem, let’s find better ways of communicating with each other.

After all, the trolls only come out to feed when they can hear the trip-trapping across the bridges, and we do not have to trip or trap, we can make quieter bridges that do not alert the things that like to hide underneath and sabotage.


Accessible Poetry

I don’t know the figures, but it’s pretty obvious that far more people don’t read poetry by choice, than do read it. People obliged to read it for school can’t be counted in this. By and large, the people writing poetry are people who read poetry. After all, no one does poetry for the fame and glamour, the only realistic motivations involve love or catharsis, or both. Often (but not always) people who write poetry seem to assume that they are writing only for the small number of people who habitually read poetry, and this tends to make poetry less accessible.

I read a collection recently that had a lot of classical references in it. Now, it’s one thing if you’re a Hellenic Pagan writing about Greek Gods for fellow Pagans – this is not about you! Pagans aside, access to ‘classics’ tends to come with a certain kind of education – grammar school, or private. Anyone under forty will probably not have studied Latin at state school. Anyone who went to a secondary modern, or even a regular comprehensive won’t have done much on classical writing. There is a definite class aspect to this, and as most of us are working class, most of us are excluded from any poetry that assumes the reader has had a certain kind of education. I know people whose poetic education was about verse – rhyme and beat, which means everything of the twentieth century ‘classics’ is unfamiliar to them.

Yes, we can self-educate and many of us do. Yes, we can read around, and read widely, and as voraciously as the local library and time will allow. But, if you read alone and for the love of it, you probably won’t find your way to all the literary poets other poets may be inclined to reference. You may well be totally put off long before that happens.

Now, if your poetry includes waves to ancient Rome, or T.S. Eliot, but makes perfect sense to someone who doesn’t know about those things, you’re golden. Those who know can enjoy it, those who don’t know can enjoy it and you may even help someone find their way into other things they hadn’t read before. However, if the sense of the poem depends on knowing who Eurydice was, or being able to recognise what God said to Noah without the context, or something of that ilk, it becomes a locked box for which many readers will never have the keys, and that’s just annoying.

When a poem assumes knowledge the reader does not have, the poet is saying ‘this is not for you.’ I don’t think poetry should be a largely inaccessible thing written by and for a particular kind of educated elite. I think poetry should be for everyone.